Returning to Dresden in 1951 to attend the Academy, Richter found a city very different from that in which he had been born, having been virtually obliterated by the bombing campaigns of the Allied forces in February 1945. "Some buildings, or parts of buildings, were still intact, especially in Güntzstrasse where I was first and where all the first-year students studied. What I remember vividly is that very often, practically every day, we would walk through rubble to get from one building to the next, from Güntzstrasse to Brühl's Terrace and back. The whole city was strewn with rubble."1 He started out living in Langebrück near Dresden with his (great) Aunt Gretl, whom Dietmar Elger describes as supportive of the young artist, helping him with money as well as his lodgings.2 It was soon after enrolling at the Academy that Richter met Marianne Eufinger, who in 1957 was to become his first wife. Known as Ema, she was a fashion and textiles student who lived with her parents in Dresden, and must have played a part in Richter's decision to move out of his great aunt's house into an apartment with friends just a couple of doors away from her.3
Richter was excited to be studying at the Academy. "[…] it was something really great to be admitted to the Academy at all, and even the wrecked building on Brühl's Terrace was very impressive. It was great being part of all that, and the fact that the teachers were real artists.4 The five-year course was rigorous, beginning at 8.00 in the morning (a routine Richter later described as 'loathsome'5) and involved eight hours a day of lessons. "It was a very academic, traditional school, where you learned from plaster copies and nude models."6 As well as the daily activities of life drawing, still lifes and figurative painting with oils, the Academy had a curriculum that included art history, Russian, politics and economics – subjects that Richter found as objectionable as the early mornings.
While traditional and in many ways conservative, the Academy at first seemed liberal in comparison with the agenda of the Soviet authorities in East Germany – an agenda that was increasingly imposed on the Academy during Richter's time there. Richter comments: "The goal was socialist realism and the Dresden academy was especially obedient in this regard."7 In conversation with Jan Thorn-Prikker, Richter recollects: "It became increasingly ideological. For example, we weren't able to borrow books that dealt with the period beyond the onset of Impressionism because that was when bourgeois decadence set in."8 The study of formalist art was also not permitted, with the exception of Picasso and Renato Guttuso, who, as supporters of Communism, were tolerated by the authorities. Richter gladly took the opportunity this exemption offered to engage with their work. While Richter was not, over all, satisfied with the Academy at the time and the prevalence of socialist realism, he acknowledges that, "the training I received had a great influence on me."9
Richter chose to join the new mural painting department, under Heinz Lohmar. He opted for Lohmar over the more prominent tutors Hans and Lea Grundig,10 perhaps as his department was considered less dogmatic than others,11 but also possibly because Richter had once been inspired by Hans Lillig, a mural painter who had visited Waltersdorf in order to undertake a commission for the local school.12 Richter liked Lohmar, a character about whom Robert Storr comments: "[…] although a loyal Communist Party member, [he] remained a comparatively well-informed and cosmopolitan figure."13
While materials from the West were becoming harder to access, Richter used to receive the photographic magazine Magnum each month from an aunt in West Germany, which he enjoyed, along with books and catalogues that he obtained from time to time.14 With the support of his tutor, Richter was also authorized to travel to West Germany and beyond, which he did several times during the 1950s. Trips organized by the Academy to Berlin also gave Richter access to films, museums and the theatre. He equally made the most of the resources that were available to him in East Germany, studying the works of "Caspar David Friedrich and other good painters of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Rococo paintings and pastels," at the Pillnitz museum near Dresden.15
During his time at the Academy, Richter recalls standing in the courtyard, where, for the first time, he was shown photographs of the concentration camps and the horrors that had taken place in them. "I was in my early twenties. I'll never forget it. It was like a document, with reportage photos. Awful records […] I remember wondering afterwards why East Germany hadn't made more of a fuss about it. It was almost like a secret book. It was like irrefutable proof of something we had always half known."16 Among other recollections of his time at the Academy, Richter remembers his interest in the uprisings against the Russian authorities on 17 June 1953, when he and some of his fellow students from the Academy went to Postplatz in the centre of Dresden: "That was the centre of activity, and we rushed there while the painter Harald Metzkes stayed at the Academy and continued painting. […] the fact that Metzkes kept painting annoyed me, because I saw it as a symbol of unconcerned painting."17
In his final year of studies Richter was offered his first major commission as part of his thesis project: to paint a mural for the German Hygiene Museum [Deutsches Hygienemuseum]. With the theme of the Joy of Life [Lebensfreude] the mural is described by Elger as "the celebration of a joyful socialist system liberated from fascism"18 and by Robert Storr as "[…] true to its type and period: solidly modeled figures of healthy men, women and children engaged in life-enhancing activities."19 It was received with considerable praise and enthusiasm by both his examiners and officials at the Hygiene Museum. Bearing none of the hallmarks of his mature works, the mural gives an idea of the direction his life and career might have taken should he not have taken action to change its course. "Maybe for some short moment I thought this could be a future for me, making big paintings, public paintings [… But] I never really thought that I would have a job in this field, painting murals or as a public artist."20
Having successfully completed his studies at the Academy in 1956, he was accepted onto a scheme run by the Academy for promising graduates. In exchange for teaching evening classes to the public, he received a studio and a modest income for the next three years.21 He was also awarded a number of further mural commissions, including an exotic and fantastical scene for a nursery school, a map and sundial for a school on the Polish border, and a substantial painting for the walls of the Socialist Unity Party regional headquarters in Dresden,22 featuring "muscular men and women wielding sledge-hammers and paving stones, and waving banners as they confront mounted troops swinging truncheons."23 Storr describes another mural in which a bare-chested man distributes official newspapers.24
In many respects, things were going well for the artist, who was on his way towards a successful career as an artist with the support of the State. But Richter was growing increasingly uncomfortable with the restrictions imposed on his work: "The thing that was really unbearable was the hopelessness, the pressure to succumb – how shall I say? – to compromise, to fall in line."25 And while he was neither willing to associate himself too closely with the underground art scene nor with dissident artists, whom he thought had developed "a kind of haughtiness,"26 he was still searching for a viable position and a new aesthetic language. "After all, we had this grand illusion of a 'third way'. That was the promising mixture of Capitalism and Socialism. […] this 'third way' was kind of an idealistic dream."27
Richter's break away from this mindset was in part inspired by a trip to documenta II in Kassel, West Germany, in 1959. Seeing works by Jackson Pollock, Jean Fautrier and Lucio Fontana among others made Richter aware that "there was something wrong with my whole way of thinking," perceiving in their work the "expression of a totally different and entirely new content".28 The freedom he knew to be offered to artists on the other side of the Iron Curtain must certainly have been on his mind, and the trip to documenta undoubtedly strengthened his resolve to leave East Germany. According to Elger's account,29 in March 1961, just a few months before construction of the Berlin Wall began, Richter went as a tourist to Moscow and Leningrad, carrying more luggage than he needed. On the journey back, he remained on the train as it went through to West Germany, where he got off, deposited his bags at Left Luggage, and returned to Dresden to meet Ema. A friend then drove them to East Berlin, where they took the underground train to the West, declaring themselves as refugees on arrival. Soon after his defection, on April 6, 1961, he wrote the following letter to his professor, Heinz Lohmar:
It required a long period of consideration and introspection to find clarity on the pros and cons of my plans and finally to take a decision, which I am convinced is the right one.
The reasons are largely to do with my career […] When I say that the whole cultural 'climate' in the West offers me and my artistic endeavours more, that it is more compatible with my way of being and my way of working than the climate in the East, I am pointing out the main reason behind my decision. Incidentally, I became completely certain of this during my journey to Moscow and Leningrad.
I don't wish to expound any further right now on the reasons for my leaving. I just want to tell you that it was very difficult for me to go, even though I knew I had to act; I am aware of what I have left behind, and mine was not a careless decision based on a desire to drive nicer cars.
I'm especially sorry to have to send you such an announcement. I do not want to ask you for forgiveness and cannot expect you to condone my actions, but I do want to take the liberty of sincerely thanking you with all my heart for all that you have done for me, for all the trouble you have gone to to support me and my work in every way. I will always appreciate that.30
1 Interview with Jan Thorn-Prikker, 2004. Gerhard Richter: Text, p.467.
2 Elger, A Life in Painting, p.11.
3 Ibid., p.13.
4 Interview with Jan Thorn-Prikker, 2004. Gerhard Richter: Text, p.468.
6 Interview with Bruce Ferguson and Jeffrey Spalding, 1978. Ibid., p.106.
7 Richter, cited in Elger, A Life in Painting, p.12.
8 Interview with Jan Thorn-Prikker, 2004. Gerhard Richter: Text, p.468.
9 Interview with Bruce Ferguson and Jeffrey Spalding, 1978. Ibid., p.106.
10 Elger, A Life in Painting, p.13.
11 Robert Storr asserts: "Curiously enough, though, the mural department in which Richter chose to study, was well known as a sanctuary from the most rigid application of the Socialist Realist model because it was assumed that the demands of wall decoration would permit a measure of otherwise unacceptable 'formalism'." Storr, 40 Years of Painting, p.21.
12 As Elger notes, "He marveled at the painter's technique and the progress of the mural, a fascination that may have lingered and perhaps even affected his decision later in art school to specialize in the genre." Elger, A Life in Painting, p.7.
13 Storr, Forty Years of Painting, p.21.
14 Interview with Richter by Robert Storr, Gerhard Richter: Text, p.377.
15 Ibid., p.376.
16 Interview with Jan Thorn-Prikker, 2004. Gerhard Richter: Text, pp.469-70.
17 Ibid., p.469.
18 Elger, A Life in Painting, p.17.
19 Storr, Forty Years of Painting, p.21.
20 Interview with Richter by Robert Storr, Gerhard Richter: Text, p.376.
21 Elger, A Life in Painting, p.17.
22 Ibid., pp.18-19.
23 Storr, Forty Years of Painting, p.22.
25 Interview with Jan Thorn-Prikker, 2004. Gerhard Richter: Text, p.470.
26 Ibid., p.468.
27 Ibid., pp.468-9; Speaking with Benjamin Buchloh, Richter elaborates, "I lived my life with a group of people who laid claim to a moral aspiration, who wanted to bridge a gap, who were looking for a middle way between capitalism and Socialism, a so-called Third Path. And so the way we thought, and what we wanted for our own art, was all about compromise. Interview with Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, 1986, Gerhard Richter: The Daily Practice of Painting, Writings 1962-1993, Hans Ulrich Obrist [ed.], Thames & Hudson, London 1995 [1995 edition, reprinted 2005], p.132 / Gerhard Richter: Text, p.164.
28 Interview with Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, 1986, Gerhard Richter: The Daily Practice of Painting, Writings 1962-1993, Hans Ulrich Obrist [ed.], Thames & Hudson, London 1995 [1995 edition, reprinted 2005], p.132-3 / Gerhard Richter: Text, pp.163-4.
29 Elger, A Life in Painting, p.30.
30 Letter to Professor Heinz Lohmar, 1961. Gerhard Richter: Text, p.13.